The first time I heard about Badami was in my undergraduate Geology class nearly 20 years back. It was a class on the Geological Time Scale and we were being shown slides from various parts of India and the world as examples of different geological time periods. I still remember the Badami slide from that class—the sheer red sandstone cliffs, silhouetted against a deep blue sky. It was love at first sight.
At that time I had absolutely no idea that Badami was also the location of rock-cut cave-temples dating from the 6th century. I got to know about this only a couple of years back, when one of my brothers visited the cave-temples of Badami and shared his photographs. Now, it was love at second sight!
When the opportunity to visit Badami, along with other heritage places in North Karnataka, as part of an organised tour group came up, I grabbed it with both hands. I applied for leave from work a full month in advance, juggled deadlines, prayed hard, etc., etc.
Bijapur was our first halt and after an overnight stay in that town, we left early next morning for Badami, with a short halt at the Almatti Dam Gardens. By noon, the red sandstone cliffs of Badami appeared in the horizon. There is an interesting reason as to how Badami got its name. Someone in the historical or mythological past, and I don’t know who, felt that the red stones were the colour of badam or almonds. And hence, the name!
The Badami sandstones were chosen by the Chalukyas for their fine-grained, compact nature, which facilitated excavation of these sandstone hills to build 4 cave-temples, as well as carve out rock-cut sculptures in them.
Of the 4 cave-temples, three are dedicated to Hindu Gods, while the fourth has a Jaina theme. Cave-Temple 3 is the oldest of them and is dedicated to Vishnu. It is also the largest of the cave-temples and was excavated, according to Kannada inscriptions in the cave, in 578 by Mangalesa, a powerful Chalukya King. Cave-Temple 2, also dedicated to Vishnu, was the next to be excavated, followed by Cave-Temple 1, which is dedicated to Shiva. Cave-Temple 4, the Jaina cave-temple was excavated at the very top of the hill at the end of the 7th century.
All the cave-temples have certain common features: a rectangular pillared verandah (mukha-mandapa), a more or less square pillared hall (maha-mandapa), and a small almost square shrine room (garbha-griha) at its rear. All the cave-temples have extensively sculpted interiors depending on the cave’s theme, which came as a bit of a shock to me after the stark, unornamented structures seen in Bijapur. None of the shrine rooms have an idol and there is no reliable record as to when these main idols disappeared, or who was responsible for their disappearance.
The carvings were not just left bare; they were painted over with vivid colours derived from vegetables and minerals. Sadly, none of this survives today except for certain patches on the ceilings of Cave-Temple 3.
It is not just the cave temples that are breathtaking. The landscape around just begs the visitor to stop and savour this natural beauty along with the beauty carved by human hands.
When Badami came under the rule of Tipu Sultan, he built a fort on top of the cave-temple bearing hills. Till a few years back, visitors could climb up to the fort through a specially built access path. But due to a spate of suicides resulting from people flinging themselves off from the fort ramparts, it is now closed to visitors.
The Badami cave-temples are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, who have undertaken minor and major repair and restoration work of the site over the years. While I am no expert, I could see that the ASI has done a good job in this regard.
Badami appeared to be a popular tourist spot, particularly for the those from nearby towns and villages. It was wonderful to see bus/jeep and even a cart load of people coming to see these beautiful, awe-inspiring caves. There were tourists from urban places, but were few in number. In spite of the large number of tourists, I was pleasantly surprised to see a spotlessly clean monument, free from litter and graffiti. This is largely due to the presence of the “Green Police”, who keep a vigilant, eagle eye on the tourists.
Can one finally say that Indians have made a beginning in appreciating and caring for our heritage? I would say an optimistic, but cautious YES !
P.S.: This visit was part of a tour organised by Doreen D’Sa of Doe’s Ecotours. She can be contacted at email@example.com.